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John Berger

THE MOMENTOF
CUBISM
and other essays
The changing view
of man in the portrait

It s c e ~ i sto me ~ ~ r i l i k e lthat
y any i m p o r ~ a n tportmil.; lvill cvcr hc
pfiinted again. l'ortraits, that is t o say, 111 the sense r,i' l-*ortmiture
:is \r-e now undcrst:ind it. I can imagine multi-nledium Illcmer:to-
5 t t s rlrvt)tctl t o thc. character of partiruiar iniliv~rlual<. R u t thew
wlll have nothing t o do \r.ilh the works rlokv i i i ~ h cNntivnal '
Pi)rtr:lit (.;nIlery .
1 see no rcason t o lament thc passing of rhc portralt - thc rnlrnt
ilnct: invol.;eJ in p o r r r a i ~piiinting can he uscrl in some other way8
t i ) scrve n more urgent, modern function. I t is, howevrr. worth

u,ljilc i n q u ~ r i n gwhy thc painic(l portrait has I~t:comeu i i t ~ l 3 t c d; i t


may hclp us t o understand more clcarly c u r historical s i t u a t i o n .
'I'hc kcginning of the decline of the painted portrait cbincided
r ~ l u q t ~ spc:ibing
ly xvirh the rise of photography, and so the earliest
answer t i , o u r clucstion - uhich w a s already h c i n q ,tsked towards
lhe end n f t h c n ~ r ~ c r e c n tcentury
h - \rJns that the photographer h:d

takcn thc p l ~ c cof' rhc portrait painter. P h i , t ~ ~ r . i pwas h ~ more


accurate, q u i r k ; ~ n dfar cheapcr; i t cl!krrccl thc opportunity u f
portraiture t o tIir uholr of socict! : prcv~nuslysuch an oppor-
tunity hat1 bccr~thc privjlrjit: of a w r y 51113ll {lift.
'To ccjuntcr tlic clcnr Irlgic of this: .lrgilnwnt, painters anci their
patron5 lnvcntcd n numbcr t-ri m)tstericlus, m e t ~ p h ~ ~ s iqualities cal
with urhich t o I.rr)\ c r h ~ tu h a t t b p;lintc.il
~ pclrtrdit offercrl was
incomparable. 0 1 1 1 ~ ; a Inm, not a machine (thc camera), cuuld
interprcr the soul of n sit tcr. An artist dealt with the s~tter'sdestiny:
the carncra with mrrc 11ghr and \bade. ,In n r t i q t judged: a photcl-
~ r a p h e rreu)rdc.tl. I-Lt~ctrra,ercctcra.
XI1 this was 41,ukly untrue. F ~ r s t ,it denies the intcrprctative
role of thc which is considerable. Secondly, i i claims
Thc Present Xioment

for paintcd portraits a psych~nlogic~l insight which rlintty-nine per


cent of thcm totally lack. If one is c o n ~ i d c r i npurtraiturc
~ as a
genre, it is no guod thinking of a few extraor&aary pictures hut
rather of the endless portraits of the local nr)hilitf. and dignitaries
in countless provincial muscums and town halls. b:vrn tl-tc average
Kenaiss~nceportrait - although suggesting considerablc prr.scnce
- h a s very little psycl~ologicalcontcnt. W'c are surprised by nnciznt

Roman or Iigyptian portraits, not beciluse of their imtqbt, bur


hccause they sI~r>wu s very vividly how little the huttlan face hac
changed. It is a myth that the portrait paintcr \vns a revealcr of
souls. Is thcrc a qualitative diffirencc bctween thc w a y Velasqucz
painted a h c e and the wsy h r painted a bottom? l'he cornpara-
tively few portraits thar reveal true psychological penrtr:~tiun
[certain Raphacls, Rembrandts, Davlils, tiol.2~)suggcst prr~rjnal,
obsessional interests nn tllc part of the arrist u-hich simpl? cannot
be sccommodated wirhirl theprofesinnrdrr~leofthe portmit painter.
Such pictures havc the same kind of intensit! a < scif-p<>rtraits.
They are in fact works of self-discovery.
Ask yourself the following hypothetical questirm. Suppose t h ~ t
there is someh(dy in thc second half of thc nineteenth centur)- in
whom you are inrercsrctl I ~ u of t whose face you hive never seen a
picture. Would you ral11c.r fir14a painting o r 3 phutveraph of this
person? And the qucstion itself posed like that is alrcatIy Iiighly
~ ~ v o u r a htloe painting, since the lugical question should 116: u . ~ u l d
you rather find a painting or a whole alhum of photographs ?
UntiI the invcntian of photography, rhc paintcd (or sculptural)
portrait was thc only means uf recording and presrrlting the Ijke-
ness of a person. Photograph)' took over this role from painting
and a t rhc. same time raised our standards for judging how much
an infornut ive likeness should inciude.
This is nor to say t h - ~ tphotographs are if1 dl w g s suprrior to
pair~tedportraits. Thc y are more informa t ivc, more psychologic-
ally revealing, and in general more accuratc. Bur the!. are less
tensely unified. Unity in a work of art is achieved as :I result of the
?'he chancing vieu of nlan in the portrait 43

1imit:itions u - i ~ l l eme~iiunl.tivery element tias to he transfinrmcd


in ortlcr r o havc its proper placc u-ithin thcw limitations. In photo-
graphy thc transformation is to ;* ut~nsidcr.ihleextent rncchanical.
In a p;iir~tinscac11 transfor~~iation is Iargciy rllc rcsult of a conscious
rlcci>lon Ls!. thc xrtist. T h u s the unit! nf 3 pnlnting is permeated
1,~- :I i . ~ rI~ighcrclcgree of inten~irm.T h e t o t a l cffcct u f a painting
(as dictinci irorn its truthfulness) is Icss arbitrary l h m chat ot' 1
plic,togr:iph; its consrrucrlc~ni5 rnorc intcnseI1; socialized because
i t is dependent o n .i grcatcr r~uruberof hutnan clecisions. phoru-
graphic portrait m;i\- he rrlorr revealing :lnJ more accurate ahout
i l ~ clikeiiess a n ~ charazrcr
l of the sitter; hut it is likely to be less
persuasive, less (in thc vcry srrict sense of the wt,rii) conclusive.
For example, iFthc portraitist's intenrion is to Aattcr or idcalhc, he
u d l be able i t r tlu su far more convinc~nglvu*irh:1 painting than
~ v i r :tI ~photnkgraph.
l ' r o m t 1 i 1 ~h c t wc gain an insight i n t o the actual tunction of
purtr;llt p:)intlng In its heyday: a f i ~ n c t i r wc> ~ ~tend to ignclrc if we
concrntr:irc o n the small number of exceptional 'unproft.s~ic,nal'
porti-ilir:, k;; Raphael, Rembrandt, David, Goya, etcetera. I'hc
f'unctio~lof portrait paifiring was t o underwrite and idealizc a
r h o s e n social role o f thl- ~ i t t r rI f W:IS not to present him :45 ' x n
inJi\,idual' h u t , rather, :IS :an indiviclual monarch, bishop, land-
uuner, merchant and su [)n. Each rule had its accepted ciualitics
sncl its acceptable limit of hscrepancy. (11rnrmlirch or a pope could
hc i : ~ morc
r idiosyncratic than a mere gentle~manu r couct~er.)'rhe
rolc was cmphahizcd by pose, gesture, clothes nnci background.
'Thc facr that neither thc sitter nor the succcssiul professional
painter w;ls much inrolt-cd with the painting of t h e x parts is n o t
LO be entircly explained as a matter of saving time: they were
thought o i and were meant to be reacl as t hc accepted attributes of
a given social stereotype.
Thc hsck paintcrs never went much bzyond the stereotypc; the
goucl professinnals (hlemlinck, Cranach, Titian, Rubens, Van
D y c k , Vclasquez, EiaIs, Philippe Jc Cl~ampaigne)painted individual
men, bur they were nc (.ert l~c.lc.~s
nlen 1 ~ 1 1 )>L.
: crer a r i J f:~ci:il
cliar:~
cu1~1t.scionswcrc sccu nnd judgctl ln rhe cxclusir c 11,;i:f of : i l l
sricial rolr. 'l'he portrfiit rnusr t i t l ikc a 1~1nilt t ~ a ~pl .c~ i rof
c>rtl:~ii~ccl
shrxs, b u t rhc type of d ~ o cwas never in c1uC.;:i(,n.
The urisfactinn nf haxrjng rjnc's portrait pairltrrl M-:IS the s;:tij-
f ~ c t i o nof bcjriy p e r s ~>rl;dlv rzcogn inc,cl and cfit1,5~tj;~,riill orrl,';prlsifzor~ :
it hail rtothing to t l t r with rhc. 111ociern lr!r~.cl~ rlcblrc I9 t3erccrll:i:izc(l
L f t ~~-11:it
r r >r:e rc;illy is'.
If cbnc xverc goinq 1-0m,trk the rnrtmcrlt w h c r ~t h c cleciinc t)f
lx)rtr:~iturebecame inuvit:~l,lc, bv siting I ~ work C of a particlll;ir
artisr, 1 woult-1 C ! I ~ J ~ J S Ctllc two o r rhrrc cxtrir)rtlinary p o r t r ~ i t so f
lunatics Ily E;Cricnulr, painrcrl in. t h c first prriocl rjf rilrnantic r l i v
illusir>n and Ilaiiancc wh~c!ifollow t.2 t h e defcar tbf Napr~lct)r~ :mrl
the shodd: t riutrlpl-I (-if thc Trcfich bourgcl 5isie. '1'11~ ~winting?; wcrc
orltticr .~necdotalnor syrnbrllic: thcy wcrc straixlil prjr
traits, ~r,\di~ionillly p:i~ntcrd.J ct their sir 1cr3had ni-l .;ticia1 rofc ~ n d
wrrc presumed t o lbe incnl~ahlen i tulfillirlC: :in!. Tn oll>e: pic1 ures
Gdricault pnintcti sex-ererl liumrtn 11e:lds :ind 11rnLsas founrl 111 thc
~lisscctingrhc:~trc. TIjc our look as hirtcrlr critic:~l: tr, choose t i >
paint di~posscssc~l, I~lnaticsr . 1 ~a commcrir o n n1c.n oipropcrly :inrl
p n i r r ; h u t it was i ~ l s oarl acserrrLjn that the chscntial spirit of man
w:~sindcl)cntlcnt of t l ~ crtde ir~to\\-h~chsociety forcecl hirn. Cidri-
c-tuit fr->ullrI >ocict! rle\yAllve tl~ar,altl;ough bane hirnself. I:<
founrl the i ~ o l a t i r l nof t11c mad Inor? n ~ c a n i n ~ fthan i ~ l he social
honour accorded to :he successful. I Ie was the !irst : ~ r l t l ,in :I s e n v ,
the last profrnintlly nntl-7qcial por~t.~itist. 'Thc t e r ~ ncl)j:rains n n
irnprl\.;ihle contr:lcii(.rion.
~ I i t c rC;Cr~c~r~lt, proic>.;ic,nal portrniturc dereneratctl lr,to scrvilc
grid cmss pcrso~i:~! flattery, cvr~icallyunt!crr:~kcn. 1; was n o !cj:~qcr
p t ~ s ~ i hto l r belicr:e in thc value o f the soci;~] rt,!c.s c11ust.n t)r ~ l i o rid.
r
Sincr-rc artists parntcrl a n u n i t ~ c rof ' i r l r i m ~ t r 'lx)rtr:tit7 r)f their
ii~cr~rls or ~nodcls((.:r>rtl~. <:orlrl~cr, Dcqis, ( :>zatinc, V;ln C;OKII!,
b u t is) tl:ese tl7r < i > ~ role i , ~ lof thc s i t r z r 17 rrducccl to i i l , ~ u{!~c*inx
~
p,~in!cd.Tic i;npljcll iocial \r;ilur i.; ejtllct 1h;lt r r f pcrbLrnnI frirncl-
h l l i p (l>roxil~~i!y)or t h t o t L , L - ~ J ) #~ , L C ;i>! ~\ucIi 2 ~va,;(l-,eiri:: ':te:itc~i')
11: :i1: orixiri;~lartist. I11 rirl~crc;ise ihc slrter, solncuh-it like :in

.irrangec! S I ill life, bccllmcs suhservierlt to rhc ;>airltrr..I ' ~ r ~ : l l lity i;


r + i i ~ his
t pcrsonnliiy or his role a,lllch impress us llut t J w .lrtist's
vic~on.
Toulousc- I . a u ~ r c cu ~ th:.
s orle i ~ n p o r t a n tlait cr-flay csccptirm to
this gcncml rcr,ile!ic>'. I k ~ a i n t e dn number cjipt~rtraiisof tarts arlcl
cal~aretpcrsr~nal~rics.17.;\kc survey thcm, thcr. survey us. il social
reciprocity is c.51aldlsl~ctl11lruu):h the p;lintt.~'s rnccliar ion. 'Kc re
prcsynted ncithcr with 3 disguise - :i> u-it11 utticial purtraiturc -
nor with mcrc creatures of the artist's vj:.ion. Iiis portraits are the
only latc ninercenth-ccn~uryv i m u-hich arc pcr<ussivc and con-
clu>ivc in rhc sense that we have cleiined. They are r.hc only palr~tccl
p~)rtrairsl t t whose social evidcncc \LC: car1 helicw. Thcy su6<(<pst,
not i h e artist's stucho, but L t IIC M.CIII(~ of T ~ ~ 1 ~ 1 ~ s c - L a tu ht r~ct ~ ~ :
1 5 to s:~! a sptcitic and complcx social milieu. Why was 1,;lutrvc

such a n exception? Bccnusc in 1113eccentric and ohversc manner he


bel~evedin the socral rulcb vf iu5 sitters. He pa~ntedthc cabaret
performers because hc a d m ~ r t dtheir performances: lie pa:i~terlthe
[arts because he rccognlxctl the usefulness of thcir trade.
Incleasing1)- for ovcr a century fewer and f r u c r ~lulylci r i c ~ p i t a l -
i b t society have bccn able to believe i n the social value of t t ~ c wcial
rulcs uffered. This 1s thc secorld answer to o u r p r ~ ~ i n nyur:,tion l
about the dcclinc of t h e paiiited portrait.
The sect3nd answer suggests, however, that given a more con&
dent ant1 cohcrcnt srjcirty, portrait painting might revive. And this
seems unlikely. '1'0 untltrstand why, \i-e mlrst consider the third
answer.
The measures, thc scale-changc of rno~lrrnlife, have changed thc
nature of ~rdividualidentity. Cunfrrm!rd with :inother person
totlay, we are aware, tllrougtl this pcrsrm, c ~ fvrces f rlyeratin,: in
rlircct~nnswhich were unirrlaginable hefore the turn of thc ccnrury,
ant1 u hich t ~ . ~ vc:nly
c hecome clcar rclativel y recently. It is hdrd t (,
detinc this change briefly. ,"\n ~ n a l t q yma). help.
'I'hc Prcscnt Aloment 46

\Ve hcar a lot ~ l > o uthe t crisis of thc motlcrn novcl. W h a t this
in\rolvcs, f ' u n J a n ~ c n r a l l is ~ ~a, changc in the tnorlc o$ rlnrratinrl. I t
is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially
unfnlrling i in ti~nc.And this is I ~ e o ~ u wc s e arc too aaarc nf what is
corltinually traversing rhe stork, l i t ~ t .laierally. Thnt is to say, ~nstcad
of being awfire of a point as nt1 infinitely small part of a straight
Iinc, wc nre aware of it as :an infinirely srn:ill par1 of an infinite
number of Iincs, as the crrltre of a star uf l i ~ ~ cSuch s . awareness is
the result of o u r constantly having to tnlre into account the simult-
aneity nnd uxtcnsion of events xnd possibilities.
Thcre arc many reastlns w h y this should he so: the range of
mr,rlern means of cr)mmunicatio~~: the scale of modern power: the
degrce of personal pnliticnl rcspr,nsihility that must he accepted
fnr cvcnt '; 311 ovcr t h e worlrl : the fxcr that the wt jrlrl has become
e : unevcnncss of econt,~nicdevelopment xvithin that
i ~ l J ~ v j s i h l the
wnrld : the scalc of thc csploitatirm. All these pl:~y:i piirt. Prophesy
now ~nv~>lvc:: a cct,,craphical rathcr than historical projection ; i t is
spacc 1 1 i ~ rimet t 1 1 ~ thides conwquences from us. To prophesy today
it i m l y n c r c w a r v t i , k n o \ ~ -m r n n y they fire thruughour the u-hole
worl(1 in :111 t h r j r inuqualit v. ;\11y c1mrernpor3r)-Iiarrar i \ , e which
i g n i ~ r t sthe ur,qency of t h s dimension is inroml71crc and acquires
thr ~,vor-simplifier1c h . ~ r a c r r rI :I f:~l,lr.
lf

S ~ J I Ihjng~ C Isimilar Ijut less rlircct applies t r ) thc pninred poi-trail.


\Y'e can no longer accept rhar thc ~ d c n tyi ~pf 3 m:ln can bc ndc-
cluately estnhljsherl h y prescmlng and fix in,^ w11.jt l ~ uiool:s likc
fr~>rna single vitivpoirlr i r l onc place. (One m j g l ~ t:itgue t h a t thc
same limirntinn nppl~estn rllc still p h n t o , ~ m p hbut , 3 s we h;ivest.cn,
WC' arc n o t Ic(l t r l u x p r c t a phr,t~yr:apl-r t o be as conclu>ive ;I> a

painting.) ( > u r rtrlns of recognition have changed bince the heyday


bf portrait painting. W e may still rely 9n 'l~kcncss't o identify a
person, but nr-) l o n ~ t tr r c~ ~ p l a or ~ nplace h i n ~Tc)
. concentrate u p o n
'1jkcn~-5s'i s T I , is~jlatrt ~ l s e l y .L L i s to arsumc illat the clutcrrrlosi
surhcr r o ~ ~ i u ithe r ~ rman or cjbjcct : whereas we are highly cunscious
r ~ the
f fact that nathiny cfin cnr~t:~in itrclf.
'I'he changing vlcu- t )irnan in tlle portrait

'I'l~ercare a feu, Cubist pc~rtraitsof about 191r iri which I ' j c , ~ k . v ,


ancl Hr.~cyucu.erc c.hviously conscioils of the same fact, but i n these
' ~ w r t r a i t s 'it is inlpt~ssihlctc: ) itlentif)' the sitter 2nd so the! c m s e to
br u-hnt \k9e c ~ I 1pi)r:r.~i~s.
it seems t h v t the dc-mn~:,ls of 3. modem vision are incumpatiblt.
u.1111rhe ~ i n g u l a r i t yof viewpoint which is thc p r c r r q ~ ~ i ~for i t ea
s t 2 1ic-pinted 'likeness'. The inct,mp;~tibilit~ is ct m r ~ c c t c dwith a
nlurc general crisis concerning t l l r meaning t' I rltl iviJun111y.
Inrli~idualit~ can nrl lcjrlger be cr>nt;lincd n i r h i n hc rrrrns oimani-
iest personality ~ r a is.t In a wt,rltI ~ > transition
f n n L l rcvtllution
individuality has become a problem of-Ijjst~jricnl ant1 s n c i ~ tcla- l
tions, such as cannot be rcve.ea1ed by the mere characterizaricrns of
:In already established social stereot?.pc.F,vory modr: of inrlivitluali-
tk. nunr relates to the whole wclrlcl.